KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Joba Chamberlain is going home Friday night, but coming with his new family.
Chamberlain, who won a World Series with the New York Yankees in 2009 and spent seven years with them, is scheduled to pitch for the Detroit Tigers when they visit Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
"It will be a little different," Chamberlain said. "Those guys on the Yankees, we played the game together and grew up together. We watched our kids grow up together.
"But it will be nice to wear this uniform, and it will be nice to be there with this team and these guys. I’m looking forward to getting after it with them. But the Yankees were a great chapter in my life, and I’m so grateful to them."
Chamberlain, 28, experienced the full spectrum of expectations and emotions with the Yankees. He was their first-round pick out of Nebraska in 2006 and a highly-anticipated phenom. He started for three years with mixed success, and blossomed when sent to the bullpen in 2011. He was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA and remedied his control issues. But then came the Tommy John surgery and last season, when he had a 4.93 ERA, 1.74 WHIP and became a target of the boo birds.
I asked Chamberlain about the control issues and struggles he experienced in 2013.
"My slider was not doing anything last year," he said. "And I did not have any fastball command."
I asked him if his slider and fastball command are back after three appearances, during which Chamberlain hasn’t allowed any walks or runs in three innings.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, they are both back — 100 percent."
His eyes intensified while proclaiming that, and he savored the feeling of being back with ammo in his gun.
"This game, as hard as it is physically, it’s the toughest mentally," Chamberlain said.
He lifted up his right arm and pointed to the curved scar several inches long near the inside of the elbow that has been turned a cartoon tattoo.
"I’ve got my smiley face, now" said Chamberlain, whose tattoos have meaning. Son Karter, 6, is inked onto his right chest.
And why not smile now? He’s got plenty to be happy about with a new physique, having lost 15 pounds, a new team, a new opportunity and even a beard — which he could not wear because of Yankees facial hair restrictions.
"I lost the weight as an opportunity to show appreciation to this organization for signing me," Chamberlain said. "It’s basically a second chance. I sat down with Javair Gillett (Tigers strength and conditioning coordinator) and my chef and came up with a plan. You feel better and it’s also easier on repeating your mechanics.
And so his pinstripe days are over, but his friendships remain.
Chamberlain spent the last three years sitting in the Yankees bullpen with "a bunch of guys I consider good friends" and the greatest closer the game has known, Mariano Rivera.
"What I most admire about Mariano is his tremendous consistency," Chamberlain said. "You do not know, looking at him after the game, if he blew the save or got it. He was mentally the toughest and never strayed from his routine."
He’s unlikely to face Derek Jeter on Friday. The Yankees’ legendary shortstop, who is retiring after this season, is likely to be out of the game by the time Chamberlain enters in the late innings. But he will be sure to seek out Jeter beforehand.
"The baseball stuff he has accomplished is impressive enough," Chamberlain said. "But it’s just the type of person he is that impresses you most. Derek genuinely cares about you. I remember him welcoming me with open arms when I came up to the team.
"My locker was located right across from his at old Yankee Stadium. I treasure the time I spent with him."
But now Chamberlain said he’s excited about "wearing the Olde English D" and trying to mow down the guys in pinstripes. He’s recharged and reborn.